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Overcoming the Normative Problem: Aurel Kolnai’s Account of Disgust.

Political Violence
Realism
Normative Theory
Balázs Zoltán
Corvinus University of Budapest
Balázs Zoltán
Corvinus University of Budapest

Abstract

The interest in moral emotions has been on the rise. Emotions are rarely thought of as freely chosen conditions, and hence Kantian ethics treats them with suspicion: morality should be in full control of emotions. However, the Humean challenge to Kant stands firm here: emotions cannot be detached, separated from our moral selves, including our moral thinking, as Kantians would like to have it. Nonetheless, we are capable of reflecting on them, finding them both as given (shaped by the external world) and as approved or disapproved by our inner self. Yet again, our approval or disapproval is itself partly conditional on our (on assumption, autonomously adapted) ethical views, but partly on the moral value of the emotion itself. In politics, certain emotions are especially relevant: think of hatred or fear or disgust. A Humean account of moral emotions in politics would argue that such emotions have great objective force that cannot be eliminated by some moral fiat: this is the realist core of Humean political normativity. Moreover, they can be sometimes useful, even morally commendable, though on other occasions they can be harmful and morally reprehensible: this is the moralist core of the Humean position. I do think that reflecting on emotions (rather than on ethical principles and rules) is a more fruitful approach to political normativity, but I do not wish to argue on this highly abstract level. Instead, I propose to analyze the emotion of disgust. The reason is that although the instrumental value of disgust in politics is sometimes acknowledged, its current discussions seem to have neglected the fact that disgust is not necessarily or not entirely a negative (though occassionally useful) emotion. It can be positively tempting, alluring, and fascinating. Its moral implications are, thus, far more complicated than one would expect. Feeling disgust is reconcilable with being interested in, taken by, and approving of what is disgusting. This makes it, in politics, an extremely ambiguous emotion. The most minutious classic discussion of disgust was offered by the Aurel Kolnai. His phenomenological method is arguably more accurate, seminal - and realist - than the more narrow-focused ethical treatments of disgust. I wish to relate his account to his no less classic dissection of Nazi ideology: The War Against the West. I shall argue that his disgust for Nazism helped him understand it more thoroughly, without being converted to or consumed by it. However, the lesson is not a simple recommendation of disgust as an intellectually rewarding and morally approvable emotion: there is a danger in its strange attractive power.